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What A Body Knows: Does “Healthcare” Have Anything To Do With Health?

The other day, an article on breastfeeding caught my eye. Apparently, some celebrities have recently boasted about breastfeeding’s bulge-burning benefits. The article offered a response, amassing anecdotes from women, asking: Is it true?

On the one hand, as someone who might qualify for professional-breastfeeder status, I warmed to the article’s positive pose. A mother of five, I have nursed for a total of more than ten years—a full quarter of my life—and haven’t stopped yet. It works for me, my kids and our family.

On the other hand, however, the article made me shudder—and not just because it appeared in a fashion segment about fat. Left intact and even reinforced by the discussion was the greatest obstacle there is to any woman figuring out how to best nurture her child: the idea that her body is a thing. This idea is hazardous to our health.

While no one came out and said, “your body is a thing,” the discussion assumed that a maternal body is a material entity subject to a set of general rules that apply to it. Is breastfeeding-to-lose such a rule? Women interviewed in the article and those who responded to it lined up for and against the rule based on their experiences. Those for whom it was true expressed delight that their bodies worked as they should. Those for whom it wasn’t were resigned or resentful or rebellious, blaming their bodies, or citing variables that interfered with the rule’s effect (like metabolism, not enough sleep or inadequate exercise).

However, the point to take home is not the truism that every woman is unique. The unsung point concerns the nature of health itself. Health is whole. What is healthy for us is something we must work out for ourselves in the context of the relationships that sustain us. Health is not given to us; it is created by us, as we use the information at our disposal to discover and grow the seeds of what our own bodily selves know.

Health, in this sense, is both the ability to know what is good for us, and the willingness to align our thoughts and actions with that knowledge. To have it, we need to cultivate it in our sensory selves, and for our sensory selves, every day—even (and especially) when figuring out how best to nurture a child.

This approach to health is absent from our current national healthcare debates. Health is not what we get when we secure cheap drugs, insurance policies or the right diet and exercise plan.

Even so-called “preventative medicine” is not about health. It is about monitoring a few variables that scientists know how to measure, marking them as “indicators,” and then prescribing drugs or behavior modifications designed to keep our numbers within a specified range. It is about identifying and managing risks based on statistics gathered over other times, places and persons.

Little in our contemporary approach to healthcare is about helping us learn for ourselves how to discern for ourselves what is good for us. We are told what is good for us and advised to implement it, for our own good. The assumption is that we don’t know or understand ourselves.

Yet, the fact is that no stack of statistics can deliver the most important piece of information you need for your ongoing health: Which dot on the curve is you? No one can tell you, specifically, what you most need to know: What will work to enhance your health?

Our bodies are not things. Our bodies are movement—movement that is constantly registering sensations of pain and pleasure, designed to guide us in making choices that align with our best health.

Yet this capacity for knowing what is best for us remains a mere potential unless we develop it. Specifically, we need to learn to welcome, work with, and refine our sensations of pain and pleasure so that our sensory selves can become surer guides. Support in doing this kind of work is what mothers—as well as those concerned with health—need.

You must like nursing, people say. Well, yes and no. It’s not really about liking it. It’s about making the movements that allow me to be the mother, dancer and philosopher I am and want to be. It’s about making the movements that will enable me to keep working and sleeping, allow my child to continue napping, and let me stay sane. It’s about managing the flow of thoughts and feelings, laundry and lunching. It’s about convenience and challenge, pleasure and well-being, time saved and spent. It’s about investing in an immune system and trusting in touch. It’s about figuring out what works, and having the faith and fortitude to honor it. It’s about health.

There is no way to measure the complexity of variables that make breastfeeding right for me, and thus there is no way for me to assume its rightness for someone else.

Our health is something we cultivate by paying attention to our own bodily selves. But we cannot begin to do so until we stop looking outside of ourselves for the rule that applies to our bodies, and start welcoming whatever information and stories come to us—not as grounds for judging ourselves, but as vital resources for helping us explore the movements we can make toward our own health. It’s what our bodies know.

About the Author:

Kimerer LaMothe, Ph.D., is a philosopher and dancer who lives with her partner and their five children on a farm in upstate New York.